The Great Hunt: Page 117
"Besides," he said, peering cautiously across his saddle after her, "it is a dull life in the stedding compared to traveling with
"If you are going to start that again," Mat muttered, and Loial spoke up quickly. "Three friends, then. You are my friends, I hope."
"I am," Rand said simply, and Perrin nodded.
Mat laughed. "How could I not be friends with somebody who dices so badly?" He threw up his hands when Rand and Perrin looked at him. "Oh, all right. I like you, Loial. You're my friend. Just don't go on about ... Aaah! Sometimes you're as bad to be around as Rand." His voice sank to a mutter. "At least we're safe here in a stedding."
Rand grimaced. He knew what Mat meant. Here in a stedding, where I can't channel.
Perrin punched Mat's shoulder, but looked sorry that he had when Mat grimaced at him with that gaunt face.
It was the music Rand became aware of first, unseen flutes and fiddles in a jolly tune that floated through the trees, and deep voices singing and laughing.
"Clear the field, smooth it low.
Let no weed or stubble stand.
Here we labor, here we toil,
here the towering trees will grow."
Almost at the same moment he realized that the huge shape he was seeing through the trees was itself a tree, with a ridged, buttressed trunk that must have been twenty paces thick. Gaping, he followed it up with his eyes, up through the forest canopy, to branches spreading like the top of a gigantic mushroom a good hundred paces above the ground. And beyond it were taller still.
"Burn me," Mat breathed. "You could build ten houses from just one of those. Fifty houses."
"Cut down a Great Tree?" Loial sounded scandalized, and more than a little angry. His ears were stiff and still, his long eyebrows down on his cheeks. "We never cut down one of the Great Trees, not unless it dies, and they almost never do. Few survived the Breaking, but some of the largest were seedlings during the Age of Legends."
"I'm sorry," Mat said. "I was just saying how big they are. I won't hurt your trees." Loial nodded, seeming mollified.
More Ogier appeared now, walking among the trees. Most seemed intent on whatever they were about; though all looked at the newcomers, and even gave a friendly nod or a small bow, none stopped or spoke. They had a curious way of moving, in some manner blending a careful deliberateness with an almost childlike carefree joyfulness. They knew and liked who and what they were and where they were, and they seemed at peace with themselves and everything around them. Rand found himself envying them.
Few of the Ogier men were any taller than Loial, but it was easy to pick out the older men; one and all they wore mustaches as long as their dangling eyebrows and narrow beards under their chins. All of the younger were smoothshaven, like Loial. Many of the men were in their shirtsleeves, and carried shovels and mattocks or saws and buckets of pitch; the others wore plain coats that buttoned to the neck and flared about their knees like kilts. The women seemed to favor embroidered flowers, and many wore flowers in their hair, too. The embroidery was limited to the cloaks of the younger women; the older women's dresses were embroidered, as well, and some women with gray hair had flowers and vines from neck to hem. A handful of the Ogier, women and girls for the most part, did seem to take special notice of Loial; he walked staring straight ahead, ears twitching more wildly the further they went.
Rand was startled to see an Ogier apparently walking up out of the ground, out of one of the grassy, wildflowercovered mounds that lay scattered all among the trees here. Then he saw windows in the mounds, and an Ogier woman standing at one apparently rolling a piecrust, and realized he was looking at Ogier houses. The window frames were stone, but they not only seemed natural formations, they appeared to have been sculpted by wind and water over generations.
The Great Trees, with their massive trunks and spreading roots as thick as horses, needed a great deal of room between them, but several grew right in the town. Dirt ramps took the paths over the roots. In fact, aside from the pathways, the only way to tell town from forest at a glance was a large open space in the center of the town, around what could only be the stump of one of the Great Trees. Nearly a hundred paces across, its surface was polished as smooth as any floor, and there were steps built up to it at several places. Rand was imagining how tall that tree had been when Erith spoke loudly enough for them all to hear.
"Here come our other guests."
Three human women came walking around the side of the huge stump. The youngest was carrying a wooden bowl.
"Aiel," Ingtar said. "Maidens of the Spear. As well I did leave Masema with the others." Yet he stepped away from Verin and Erith, and reached over his shoulder to loosen his sword in its scabbard.
Rand studied the Aiel with an uneasy curiosity. They were what too many people had tired to tell him he was. Two of the women were mature, the other little more than a girl, but all three were tall for women. Their shortcut hair ranged from a reddish brown to almost golden, with a narrow, shoulderlength tail left long at the back. They wore loose breeches tucked into soft boots, and all their clothes were some shade of brown or gray or green; he thought the garments would fade into rock or woods almost as well as a Warder's cloak. Short bows poked over their shoulders, quivers and long knives hung at their belts, and each carried a small, round shield of hide and a cluster of spears with short shafts and long points. Even the youngest moved with a grace that suggested she knew how to use the weapons she carried.
Abruptly the women became aware of the other humans; they seemed as startled at being startled as they did at the sight of Rand and the others, but they moved like lightning. The youngest one shouted, "Shienarans!" and turned to set the bowl carefully behind her. The other two quickly lifted brown cloths from around their shoulders, wrapping them around their heads instead. The older women were raising black veils across their faces, hiding everything but their eyes, and the youngest straightened to imitate them. Crouching low, they advanced at a deliberate pace, shields held forward with their clusters of spears, except for the one each woman held ready in her other hand.
sword came out of its sheath. "Stand clear, Aes Sedai. Erith, stand clear." Hurin snatched out his swordbreaker, wavered between cudgel and sword for his other hand; after another glance at the Aiel's spears, he chose the sword.
"You must not," the Ogier girl protested. Wringing her hands, she turned from Ingtar to the Aiel and back. &
Rand realized the heronmark blade was in his hands. Perrin had his axe half out of the loop at his belt and was hesitating, shaking his head.
"Are you two crazy?" Mat demanded. His bow still slanted across his back. "I don't care if they are Aiel, they're women."
"Stop this!" Verin demanded. "Stop this immediately!" The Aiel never broke stride, and the Aes Sedai clenched her fists in frustration.
Mat moved back to put a foot in his stirrup. "I'm leaving," he announced. "You hear me? I'm not staying to let them stick those things in me, and I am not going to shoot a woman!"
"The Pact!" Loial was shouting. "Remember the Pact!" It had no more effect than the continued pleas from Verin and Erith.
Rand noticed that both the Aes Sedai and the Ogier girl were keeping well out of the Aiel's way. He wondered if Mat had the right idea. He was not sure he could hurt a woman even if she was trying to kill him. What decided him was the thought that even if he did manage to reach Red's saddle, the Aiel were now no more than thirty paces away. He suspected those short spears could be thrown that far. As the women came closer, still crouching; spears ready, he stopped worrying about not hurting them and began worrying about how to stop them from hurting him.
Nervously, he sought the void, and it came. And the distant thought floated outside it that it was only the void. The glow of saidin was not there. The emptiness was more empty than he ever remembered, vaster, like a hunger great enough to consume him. A hunger for more; there was supposed to be something more.
Abruptly an Ogier strode in between the two groups, his narrow beard quivering. "What is the meaning of this? Put up your weapons." He sounded scandalized. "For you" - his glare took in Ingtar and Hurin, Rand and Perrin, and did not spare Mat for all his empty hands - "there is some excuse, but for you - " He rounded on the Aiel women, who had stopped their advance. "Have you forgotten the Pact?"
The women uncovered their heads and faces so hastily that it seemed they were trying to pretend they had never been covered. The girl's face was bright red, and the other women looked abashed. One of the older women, the one with the reddish hair, said, "Forgive us, Treebrother.
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